Planning for a Sustainable Future: American Theater Company

Joining the growing ranks of American theaters that are constructing new green buildings, the American Theater Company of Chicago announced late last year the launch of a $4 million capital campaign to build an entirely new, three-story, eco-friendly theater in the Logan Square area. Recent figures estimate that buildings account for 20 to 30% of all of the energy consumed in the U.S., in the form of heating, cooling, lighting, and general electrical usage. Green buildings, depending on the technologies used in them, can do a great deal to lower that figure, while also creating a healthier environment for patrons and staff, lowering energy costs, and inspiring surrounding communities.

PJ Paparelli, the newly-appointed artistic director who had just finished a four-year stint as the artistic director of Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, took up the challenge of ATC’s new building with enthusiasm, believing it to be a perfect expression of the theater’s mission. Board VP Macie Huwiler has taken the lead in planning and implementation. GTI had a chance to speak with both recently.

Gideon Banner: How did the idea for a green building come about?

PJ Paparelli: Our plan for a green building was created before I arrived here as artistic director in November. Our board of directors, with the previous artistic director, sat down and said, “We’re looking for a new facility.” All kinds of things were discussed, but one of our board members, Wyllys Mann, who’s from a long-standing real estate company here in Chicago, had pushed the idea of looking at green construction, and emphasized that there were a lot of opportunities for grants and other similar resources.

Macie Huwiler: I have been working all along with Kevin Kelly, one of our founding members, who has some experience in the construction area and is really excited about this project. He’s the one who originally brought up the idea. It’s a hot topic in Chicago right now, because Mayor Daley has really pushed to green the city; but three years ago, when we first conceived of this project, it wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now. Everyone in the organization embraced the idea pretty much immediately.

PJ: The main reason why we decided to do it was really about our mission statement, which addresses the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” That permeates the organization – our work, outreach programs, our board, everything we do. Looking at building a building, we want to be responsible Americans, and so we really wanted to deal with the environmental issue head on. That’s the big, exciting, passionate motor that was the genesis of the idea.

MH: ATC was founded almost 25 years ago by an actor, a playwright, a designer, and a director as an interdisciplinary theater. Also, we were founded because they wanted a place where their blue-collar families could come and see theater and not be intimidated; we never intended to be a fancy downtown theater where you had to come and dress up and drink champagne; it was intended to be a theater for the people, where you could come in your jeans and drink a beer and be comfortable.

As we’ve expanded over the 25 years, we’ve gotten to a place where we embrace all cultures, and we feel that being green and saving the environment is a really important thing right now. One of the things we can contribute to society, besides just creating art, is to educate people about this. The new building will not only have a ton of green features, but all of them will be highlighted. So when you walk into the lobby, there’ll be a little picture saying, “This is what geothermal heat is, and this is how it works.” We’re talking about putting in recycled insulation, and our architect is talking about putting a little plexiglass window into the wall, so that you can see it in action.

GB: How do you anticipate your audience responding to a new green building? Are you looking to lead with this, or do you think it’s already something your audience is concerned about?

PJ: It is a big deal for us, and our audience recognizes the issue already when asked about it. I think we’re the only theater in the nation aiming for a LEED gold certification (at least we were a year ago), so we do feel like leaders in that sense.

[LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, and is a set of standards (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) administered by the U.S. Green Building Council that are awarded based on a point system. Points are awarded for each element of the building – anything from solar panels to proximity to public transportation — that contributes to its overall sustainability.]

But it’s not only the building itself, but also the location we chose. We chose to build in Logan Square, a part of town that’s gentrifying quickly but has a very rich and diverse community, heavily Hispanic and African-American. People were nevertheless shocked that we chose something so far “off-Loop”. The big theaters in Chicago are downtown within the Loop, and we’ve always been one of the largest off-Loop theaters. But our theater is very connected to the working class; we were originally called the American Blues Theater, as in “blue-collar”. That blue-collar has changed in Chicago, from the Polish working-class roll-up-your-sleeves population – we’re in a warehouse now, we actually love that aesthetic, and that new building will reflect that – to a more heavily Latino population. It’s important to us to continue to represent that part of America, both through the diversification of our programs and our location. We’re moving to a part of town that represents the rich diversity of America. Chicago has been called a very segregated theater town, as well as being a racially segregated town. We’re working very hard to break that mold, partly by creating a very diverse of ensemble of actors.

So the choice to go green is a part of that; it’s not arbitrary. It’s a symbol of our commitment to being responsible Americans. I think we’ll become leaders in Chicago.

GB: Have you personally had a concern for the environment for some time, or did it emerge when you joined the ATC staff?

PJ: No, I’ve had that concern for some time. When I was in Alaska, I could directly see the effects of global warming on the glacier near Juneau, literally seeing it shrink over the four years I was there. And being in such a beautiful place, and seeing its effects on that environment, had a great effect on me. When Perseverance was building its new space, we even had to put in air conditioning because the summers were getting so much hotter. Al Gore’s film also had a great effect on me, and we’re playing An Inconvenient Truth on screens in the lobby at ATC.

MH: My other thought is that we’ll get some kind of interactive kiosk which will serve a dual purpose: it’ll announce upcoming shows and talk about the green features of the building and the technologies involved. Every person who comes into the theater is going to be hit in the face with some green awareness.

We’ll work this into the children’s outreach programs as well. We’ll have a studio space where those programs are conducted, so every kid who comes into the building will get a tour and learn about geothermal heat, recycled rubber tiling, recycled glass tiling, low-flow sinks, green roofs, rain barrels, and so on, and then they’ll sit down and write a play or whathaveyou.

GB: Will green concerns become part of the plays that they write, i.e. joint artistic/environmental education?

MH: We’ve talked about that, but we haven’t made a definitive decision. We’re still a few years away from being in the building, so as we’re getting closer, we’ll flesh it out.

GB: Was your board gung-ho about this from the beginning? Did you have to do any persuading?

MH: No, there was no persuading whatsoever. We walked into the room and said, “This is the idea we have. What do you think of it?” And they said, “Great!” There were a few questions as to cost, and we said, “Well, it probably will increase our costs a little bit.” But the price of building green has come down significantly, even in the two years since we started discussing this. And it continues to come down. But yes, there will be costs. Obviously it will be more expensive to install a geothermal heat system. But it will pay for itself in seven years, and then your energy costs are a third of what they would otherwise be, as the model from our mechanical engineer showed. So it’s well worth it in the long run.

GB: Several other theaters have built new green buildings, some LEED-certified. Did you look at all their models – how they found funding, or what technology they incorporated?

MH: Yes, we did: to the Balzer Theater in Atlanta, and Portland Center Stage. We did in fact talk to them, and ask about their fundraising and the elements of their buildings.

It’s a journey. We started out not knowing a whole heck of a lot about what we were doing, but we started making inquiries immediately. We luckily found an architectural firm, Hartshorne and Plunkard, that’s currently doing a lot of green work in Chicago, and they’re very knowledgeable. They’re very experienced in theater design, so we didn’t have to use an outside consultant for that, but we did end up getting a green consultant.

We talked to a woman in Nevada, Jan McAdams [her website, “Funding Green Buildings”, is viewable here] who specializes in grantwriting for green buildings, and she was a goldmine of information. She spent two years conducting seminars all over the U.S. on the subject, and we contacted her at the tail end of that, just before she was about to quit. We actually sent a board member down to Florida to attend her last seminar and get all the information. So we talked to a lot of different people.

GB: Were they pretty open to speaking with you?

MH: Completely. Everyone that we have spoken to – unanimously – has been very excited about this project, and more than willing to share information and help in any way they could. Interestingly enough, by the time we talked to them, most of what they told us we were already working on, and that was by virtue of our architect and our green consultant.

GB: How has the funding come through? I saw that you have some funding from the Kresge Foundation, and that you’ll be located in a special economic zone.

MH: We’re still in the early stages of fundraising. We’re applying for TIF funds from the city of Chicago, which are set aside for certain neighborhoods in which they want to encourage economic development, and Logan Square is one of those districts.

We also have a planning grant from Kresge and one from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

GB: Is there a pre-existing building on the site now, or will you be building from the ground up?

MH: No, it’s an empty lot.

GB: How does the geothermal heating work?

MH: It’s a really interesting technology. They drill a well, anywhere from 200 to 400 feet deep, and they put a U-shaped pipe down all the way to the bottom, and there’s a fan that forces air through the tube and back up. What happens is when you get below the frost line, which in Chicago is closer to the 400-foot mark, the temperature of the Earth is very constant; it stays at 50 degrees, more or less. So then when you pump that air back up, it’s already at 50 degrees. In the summer, that’s your air-conditioning; nothing else is needed. In the winter, there’s a device called a heat exchanger that slightly warms it up to 68 degrees (or whatever temperature you want), and that’s your heat.

But it’s all done without oil or gas, it’s all done with electricity, so it’s cleaner, it reduces your carbon footprint, and it reduces your energy costs by about two-thirds. It drastically reduces your air conditioning costs, because all you have to use is fans.

We’re also going to have some solar thermal collectors that will provide hot water in the building, and we’ll have a green roof, which acts as natural insulation for the building so that you lose significantly less energy from the building.

GB: It reduces stormwater runoff as well, which must be a big issue in Chicago, since everything runs straight into the lake.

MH: Yes, absolutely.

Almost all of the materials in the building will be recycled, everything from floor tiles to wall tiles, recycled carpet. We’ll be using non-VOC paint. All of the plumbing fixtures will be low-flow, to save water. All of the light fixtures, with the exception of theater lights, will be fluorescent or LED.

The insulation will be made from recycled materials, but we haven’t decided on a type yet. There are multiple choices, one of which is leftover denim from a blue-jean factory. Ideally we’ll use that, but we have to sort through some cost considerations before choosing. The other option is some sort of spray-on foam that is sprayed into the walls.

GB: Did you look into LEDs for stage lighting?

MH: We did. I have to say this with a strong caveat, because we might change our minds, depending on the timing of construction: they’re considerably more expensive. In many theaters, you have your standard lights but you may go out to rent extra lights that fill the specific needs of that show. What we found is that, first of all, the general cost of the system for LED lights – the board, the grid, and the individual light fixtures — is really expensive, almost more than double the cost; and secondly, if you need to rent extra lights, you can’t really do that, because they’re not prevalent enough.

We think that’s going to change, and we think it’s going to change pretty fast. The cost of LEDs is projected to come down pretty significantly in the next few years because of demand. We don’t really have a timeline for the building yet; but when the time comes that we’re ready to move in, if the cost has come down significantly enough, we’ll use them.

GB: You’re aiming for a LEED gold accreditation. Was that a mark you wanted to hit and then you decided what technologies to use in order to hit that, or was it that certain technologies were cost-feasible and they added up to a gold standard?

MH: More the latter. We weren’t really sure where we were going in the beginning. We just wanted to work through what was pragmatic and practical, what we could afford, and as we went along, we discovered that there were more and more green features that wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg, so we incorporated them. When we started adding up our points, we realized that we could hit the gold standard.

LEED is a hard standard to meet, but if you’ve worked with any government entity, you know that you have to be very methodical, you have to follow procedure, you have to be very careful with your paperwork. But it’s not that much harder to do; it just requires a lot of extra painstaking detail work.

GB: Are there things that ATC is already doing to go green before you break ground on the new building?

MH: Yes. We’ve made a very concerted effort to recycle and to encourage our patrons to recycle. There isn’t much more that we can do in the space that we’re in; it doesn’t lend itself to that, and it’s a rental space.

GB: Are you saving money by recycling?

PJ: Yeah. We made a commitment to saving paper, and we almost cut the cost in half. We have a huge stack of used paper right here that we use for printing other documents. When it comes to printing scripts, printing on both sides has saved us a lot of paper.

GB: How has your staff responded to the idea of the new building?

MH: They love it. The great thing about having a green consultant is that when we finally move into the building, he’ll do a daylong workshop with the staff. He’ll go through all of the building’s green components, how to maintain and use them, how to talk about them. So that, going forward, everyone in the building will be on the same page.

We’ll also have bike racks and a shower for people who bike to work. So we’ll really be promoting a green way of living.

PJ: We’ve had some staff members who are very vocal about biking to work. We’re constantly addressing the question of how we create an example that we want other people to follow; it’s something we’re very aware of, and I’m not just saying that to be dramatic.

GB: Was audience travel a part of the planning process as well?

MH: Yes; we’ll be directly across from the L stop, and near the commuter rail. Being near those stops earns us LEED points, as well.

We also may have – this hasn’t been finalized – one designated parking spot in front of the building only for hybrid cars.

We’ve also tried to tackle one difficult problem: I had a conversation with Kevin Kelly and our green consultant a few months ago about the possibility of creating, I don’t know, a giant recycling center for theaters in Chicago, a warehouse somewhere where everyone could stow their old sets, costumes, and so on. Except for the major theaters here like the Goodman and the Steppenwolf, most of us are working on shoestring budgets, so we don’t have a ton of space; we have no storage space. So every time you do a show, you strike the set and it all gets thrown out, except for the elements the rented.

So the idea would be to have a central clearinghouse where all of this stuff could go. If everyone chipped in, maybe we could afford a storage space. And then when you’re doing another show, you can go down and pick out what you want and paint it and reuse it.

If we got that going, it might serve as a model for other cities. Have you heard mention of this anywhere?

GB: Not really. I do know of a woman here in New York, Janet Clancy, who on an ad hoc basis will recycle elements of sets. At Fashion Week here in New York, they throw away huge amounts of material, and she’ll show up and take it and place it at local arts centers. After Rent closed, she tried to find homes for their set pieces.

I asked her if we could scale it up and standardize it, perhaps make some money off of it. Part of her argument is that when a show closes down, they have to pay huge costs simply to cart away their set pieces. So this would be a way to cut down on disposal costs, and perhaps they would pay a small amount of money for her time. But she’s too busy to try and scale it up.

It seems as though it requires a recreation of the model. You have to have designers building things in such a way that they can be easily disassembled.

MH: We talked about that here. A lot of our set pieces are not only nailed or screwed but glued, because they don’t want them falling apart in the middle of a show. But when I was talking to the guys, they said they thought it was doable: if you knew going in that you wanted to be able to disassemble, you could plan for that.

I’m sure it’s the same thing in every city. Everyone in the theater world is so busy; everyone’s so busy just trying to keep their heads above water to get the next show up.

GB: It might take one devoted person in one city willing to set it all up, to figure out how it works, to deal with the pitfalls. And then other cities could emulate that model.

MH: It seems like not only would you be saving the environment, but you could be saving money as well. You pick a warehouse; you’ll have to have a truck. People could take stuff at no cost, saving them a lot of money.

GB: Perhaps it would be good if people had to pay a small amount for the materials. Say, Steppenwolf could sell their pieces to the warehouse, and the warehouse could then turn around and sell them at a higher price to other theaters, who then would be saving money by not buying virgin materials. So everybody would benefit in the process, but the model could sustain itself.

MH: And that way you could pay for rental of the warehouse and the truck as well.

GB: I’ve spoken with Bob Usdin of Showman Fabricators, one of the big scene shops in New York. I know that he’s committed to using recycled materials or to recycling elements of sets. He has a pretty keen eye to constructing things that can be disassembled quickly, easily, and in a reusable manner.

I wonder if a good place for this discussion might be at a major conference, where everyone in the room can throw out ideas to figure this out.

MH: It’s a very intriguing idea, and we’ve been kicking it around in our heads, but we just don’t have the manpower to take it up.

[We encourage readers to write back to join in this discussion about materials recycling – ideas for a new model, people they know that have undertaken such efforts, other industries that recycle and share in a similar fashion. GTI will be posting an article in the near future about individuals who have already taken up this challenge, including Janet Clancy and Eva Radke of FilmBiz Recycling.]

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